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Dive 200,000 books deep into a rare collection dating back hundreds of years

A book from Noel Memorial Librarys rare book collection current exhibition

THE PUBLIC IS WELCOME TO VISIT AND UTILIZE THE IMMENSE RARE BOOK COLLECTION AT LSUS.

This article was recently published in Shreveport Times. It was written by Tiana Kennell.

Explore a trove of rare treasures consisting of more than 200,000 literary items.

The James Smith Noel Collection inhabits first edition hardcovers, original manuscripts, hand-illustrated maps, and other limited edition pieces dating back to the 13th century.

Alexander Mikaberidze, curator for the rare book collection at Noel Memorial Library, talks about “Optique No. 4, Promenade de Longchamp”, from France dated 1818. Henrietta Wildsmith, Shreveport Times


“The Noel Collection is that rare place where individuals can meet face-to-face with rare books and items that otherwise would have been inaccessible to the vast majority of them,” said curator Alexander Mikaberidze. “We regularly host public events and bring distinguished scholars to share their expertise with our patrons. How many people have held a 400-year-old book in their hands? Or examined a 300-year-old map?”


A 1630s book on travel in Iran from Noel Memorial Library’s rare book collection.
(Photo: Henrietta Wildsmith/The Times)

The Noel Collection is where one may find a 1945 publishing of Albert Einstein’s “The Meaning of Relativity” with a cancelled check endorsed by Einstein tucked inside. 

A first edition print of Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle” and Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” signed by the authors, are among the bunch. Or view an original limited edition of “Winnie the Pooh,” published in 1926 and signed by author A.A. Milne and illustrator Ernest H. Shepard. 

It’s a collection that’s attracting the attention of the world — and it’s open to the public and housed in Shreveport. 

A collection for all 

The Noel Collection is located on the third floor of the Noel Memorial Library on the LSUS campus. It was gifted to LSUS on permanent loan by its developer and founder of the Noel Foundation, James Smith Noel. The stipulations included that the university provides a place for the collection, maintain it, and make it accessible for public use.


The rare book collection at Noel Memorial Library’s staff includes Director Martha Lawler (left), Curator Alexander Mikaberidze (right), and Cataloguers Andrea Schuba and Tyler Cunningham. 
(Photo: Henrietta Wildsmith/The Times)

Mikaberidze and director Martha Lawler are the keepers of the treasures who ensure that happens. Their duties also involve protecting and expanding the collection and documenting its contents.

“It all goes back to the fact that Mr. Noel wanted this to be a working collection,” Lawler said. “It’s not a museum. It’s meant to be used. Everything we do is to make it user-friendly.”

The public is welcome to visit the library to read and view the contents of the library in solo expeditions or arrange for a group tour. Guided tours are free and include browsing through the rows of book stacks flowing between two rooms and into the vault of the most priceless and fragile items, as well.

Tours have been particularly popular with students in junior high and upper education levels, local residents, membership organizations, and national and international visitors.

Recommended group size is between 10 to 15 people — to account for navigating the smaller spaces and to maintain an intimate experience exploring and learning from about the collection from Mikaberidze and Lawler.

The tour allows guests to hear stories about items’ origin, ask questions, and see up-close some of the more fragile and valuable pieces — and even read from books from 400 years ago. 

“We like to reach out to the general public partly because this is something they’ve never seen before. They get excited about it and that’s always wonderful,” Lawler said. 

Enter the Noel Collection

A page of a prayer book from Noel's rare book collection.

A page of a prayer book from Noel’s rare book collection.(Photo: Henrietta Wildsmith/The Times)

Mikaberidze encourages guests to “indulge in their passion and discover something new.”

Anyone from the researching scholar to the neighborhood curious bibliophile may visit to explore its contents.

The department takes up about two-thirds of the third floor in the Noel Memorial Library on the LSUS campus, which includes space for offices, reception area, two rooms for the book stacks, and the vault – which is where the most valuable, rare and fragile items are kept.

Many of the books and manuscripts are unique, in that it may be one of a handful of copies — or even the only one — in the United States, Mikaberidze said.

There are an estimated 127 book categories, including nutrition, health, architecture, art, music, drama, poetry, business and investments, law, and religion.

The Noel Collection encompasses a diverse and eclectic assortment of books, prints, maps, magazines, handwritten manuscripts, ledgers, diaries, as well as miscellaneous items such as antiquated children games.

With such a wide variety, it makes it difficult to choose a favorite. 

“There are way too many, especially if you are a bibliophile like us,” Mikaberidze said. “It’s so hard to pin it down.”

If having to choose, Lawler’s favorite is a law book published in London in 1629 — Edward Coke’s “The First Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England.” 

According to the inscription made on Jan. 6, 1654, it belonged to William Daniell but centuries later has found its way to the Noel Collection.

“It’s not a museum. It’s meant to be used.” – MARTHA LAWLER, DIRECTOR

It’s been worn, beaten up and has been repaired at least a couple of times, but it all adds character to the hardcover manuscript. What Lawler likes about it is the handwritten notes scribbled in the margins by Daniell, who was studying for the bar exam.

“By the time he got it, it was almost 30 years old,” Lawler said. “I think he may have been a law student who was either given an old copy of a book or had bought one secondhand and he’s using it to study. I love that because he makes it personal. You start wondering, ‘Did he make the bar?’ I love when they put little personal touches in there.”

One of Mikaberidze’s favorites is Joannes de Laet’s “Persia seu Regni persici status,” published in 1633.


The rare book collection at Noel Memorial Library’s Director Martha Lawler and Curator Alexander Mikaberidze inside the vault.
(Photo: Henrietta Wildsmith/The Times)

European travelers compiled writings about Iran and illustrations of how people dressed in the Middle Eastern country. The book served as a travel guide for those considering traveling to the area and as a resource for those who could not visit, but were curious about the region, Mikaberidze said.  

The oldest book in the collection was published in Paris in 1492. Written in Latin,  by sixth-century author, Cassiodoris, the title translates to “Ecclesiastical History in Three Parts” and tells the beginnings of Christianity.

The oldest item in the collection precedes the book by about 200 years. It is a page from a 13th-century breviary — or prayer book — from the Monastery of Cluny in France.

The Noel Collection acquired it from the estate of a local resident earlier this year. 

A bibliophile’s dream


Martha Lawler’s, director at the rare book collection at Noel Memorial Library, favorite book is a Law book from the 1600s that has handwritten notes in the margins.
(Photo: Molly McCombs)

The Noel Collection is a rare find in the South, as many larger university libraries carrying rare books are in the North and West, he said. Housing the Noel Collection in Shreveport may make the rare contents more convenient for the local community and bring researchers from around the world into Shreveport.  

“There are a lot of big research places on the Coast but not so much in the South,” Lawler said. “By setting up a really good collection here, we’re making it a little more convenient for local researchers. They don’t have to spend as much money to go to Harvard or to UCLA.”

Year round, the staff corresponds with national and international researchers. Researchers travel to Shreveport from various countries to utilize the collection, Mikaberidze said. 

The collection is beneficial to professional researchers, students, as well as the public who are simply curious to read and touch a piece of history.

The Noel Collection continues to grow as Mikaberidze strives to strengthen and diversify by acquiring complementary items that will attract more researchers and visitors.

“Our collection is full of books that offer life lessons on for what we should do and what not to do for success and happiness,” he said. “For me personally, time spent wandering the stacks can bring calm and peace, ignite a spark of creativity as I browse through the stacks, find interesting books and stumble across previously unknown information. It represents the best kind of indulgence — no commitments, just freedom to explore any topic that strikes your fancy.”

The collection of James Smith Noel

The Noel Collection began as a private library of the late-Shreveport businessman and educator, James Smith Noel – of the same family credited for Noel Memorial United Methodist Church and other historic establishments across the region.


The oldest and most rare books at Noel Memorial Library’s rare book collection stay in the vault. 
(Photo: Henrietta Wildsmith/The Times)

Beginning in his teenage years, Noel was passionate about rare books and indulged in the hobby of acquiring. That matured during adulthood and remained until his death. 

Noel died on Dec. 15, 1998, but his legacy lives on through the public-use Noel Collection.

Noel, who was an instructor at Centenary College and Fair Park High School, believed people of all ages should further their education beyond the traditional classroom setting, Lawler said.

Donating his prized possession to LSUS with the proviso to make it accessible and usable to the public continues to make that possible.

In 1972, he founded Noel Foundation to support education, cultural arts, and the community. The Noel Foundation Board of Directors continues to oversee the well being of the Noel Collection.   

Mikaberidze and Lawler never personally met Noel, they said, but Lawler had the honor of hosting his wife, Ruth, on a couple of occasions before her death in 2008. She was in awe and elated to see how much her husband’s collection had grown. 

“She loved what we had done with the collection,” Lawler said. “We brought her up here a couple of times to see it. At one point… she had to grab the door facing. She said, ‘I knew you were still collecting, but I had no idea.’”

The catalog

Cataloging is an extensive process that’s taking decades to complete. In that time, more than 50,000 items of the more than 200,000 items have been entered into the digital catalog. 


Alexander Mikaberidze, curator for the rare book collection at Noel Memorial Library, holds “Optique No. 4, Promenade de Longchamp”, from France dated 1818. 
(Photo: Henrietta Wildsmith/The Times)

Lawler has worked in the collection for 23 years – she is the longest standing staff member in the department. She was hired in 1996 and was the sole cataloger, working under Mikaberidze’s predecessor Robert Lietz.

To catalog one item, a list of details must be noted beyond the title and authors, such as the physical description and dimensions, origin, and edition. Catalogers must examine the book cover to cover and note handwritten markings and other notable findings discovered.

In recent years, the Noel Foundation funded the hiring of two additional catalogers to assist with the process. However, it’s still a lengthy and ongoing operation.

Many items are available for viewing via a digital catalog, which is accessible through the Noel Collection’s website and their website’s search tool

“Our intent is to put a monthly account of what we acquire, which allows scholars like me or other interested people to keep abreast of which way we’re heading,” Mikaberidze said. “It gives you a sense of which way we’re growing the collection, as well as neat and interesting things we’ve acquired.”

The Noel Collection staff also curates a special exhibition at the library that rotates every two to three months.

“Nature Takes Flight: Winged Creatures, Real & Imaginary” will be exhibited through July 31 during library hours, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The exhibit is comprised of various illustrations of creatures that can fly — birds, insects, flying squirrels, and mythical creatures, such as fairies and dragons. 

The exhibitions work to showcase items in the collection under a designated theme. 

To further highlight the Noel Collection’s impressive findings, Mikaberidze hosts a weekly podcast series on Red River Radio, “Treasures of The Noel.” Listen to the episodes at redriverradio.org/programs/treasures-noel.

The staff also regularly highlights items using stories, photos, and videos posted on the Noel Collection’s official social media accounts, on Facebook and on Instagram

Also, follow The Shreveport Times for a monthly series highlighting pieces from the Noel Collection. 

“The Noel Collection is devoted to preserving history, and more importantly, truth by providing unrestricted access to information,” Mikaberidze said. “This mission is important now more than ever.”

If you go

What: The Noel Collection

Where: Noel Memorial Library, LSUS campus, 1 University Pl., Shreveport

Hours: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday

Info: For more details, call (318) 798-4161 or visit jsnoelcollection.org.

You can check out the original published post straight from the website here: Shreveport Times.
https://www.shreveporttimes.com/story/life/2019/07/16/rare-books-library-lsu-shreveport/1630103001/

Martha Lawler’s, director at the rare book collection at Noel Memorial Library, favorite book is a Law book from the 1600’s that has hand written notes in the margins. Henrietta Wildsmith, Shreveport Times

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